Warning: SPOILERS for Black Panther ahead
It’s hard to overstate the importance of 2008’s Iron Man. The film didn’t just launch the Marvel Cinematic Universe; it also established so much of what would make the MCU successful. In terms of style, tone, and even specific character arcs, Iron Man established a pattern that Marvel has largely adhered to over the course of the last decade. That’s not a criticism. The reality is, Marvel Studios are very good at taking aspects of that formula, and subtly reworking them to create something fresh, new, and original.
But Black Panther changes all that. While it uses all the familiar tropes, the film twists them in unexpected and transformative ways. Both in terms of plot, and in terms of overall approach, there’s no going back after Black Panther. The MCU simply cannot stay the same.
Iron Man’s Impact Can Still Be Felt All Over The MCU
When Marvel launched the MCU with Iron Man, nobody could have foreseen the extent of the film’s success. Marvel quickly identified certain common themes and tropes that had been key to the movie’s performance. They spent the next few years subtly refining them, creating a consistent shared universe based on the pattern set in 2008.
Here’s the Tony Stark formula: A Marvel hero is a character who has an abrasive personality, whose character flaws are very much visible. He’s been successful within his field, but an event has brought him low, humbling him. As a result, the hero transforms themselves, learning from this experience, and dedicating themselves to their future as a superhero – perhaps even an Avenger. That pattern describes Iron Man, Doctor Strange, Ant-Man, and even Thor – who had to be cast to Earth to learn what it meant to be “worthy.” There are some exceptions (Steve Rogers’s purity of character was what suited him to become America’s super-soldier, for example), but they’re few and far between. Meanwhile, for most of Marvel’s heroes, choosing to live this life means surrendering their own personal secret identity. Only Spider-Man tries to keep his mask on (with mixed success).
Another aspect of this is that the MCU, like the comics themselves, strives to be set in “the world outside your window.” Tony Stark is a larger-than-life figure who feels very real. It’s easy to imagine men like Stark existing in the real world, and he becomes Iron Man when he visits a real-world warzone. Even when Marvel introduced fantastical concepts like Asgard, they grounded the origin story as much as possible by bringing Thor to Earth. Doctor Strange may have mastered the mystic arts, but his first real battle was in New York.
Black Panther Breaks The “World Outside Your Window” Rule
But Black Panther is different. All the familiar tropes are still there, but the script cleverly subverts them. Nowhere is that more the case than in the “World Outside Your Window” rule. Because this film is most certainly not set in the “World Outside Your Window.”
In The Art of Black Panther, executive producer Nate Moore explained how the film treads a difficult balance.
“Something that was really important to us was to make Wakanda feel like a place that could exist on Earth rather than some completely made-up place that was a fantasy land. And part of that is building sets, looking for cultural references that are very real and very alive in Africa, and building that into the plot of the story. So the world of Wakanda, the idea of a kingdom, the idea of the many tribes that make up the population of Wakanda are all things that are pulled from the comics, but also pulled from the real world.”
The truth is, though, that these ideas are pulled from a very different world. Black Panther is the first superhero movie to be set largely in Africa. When the plot strays from the African continent, it heads to another location US audiences are less familiar with – South Korea. This is the world outside a very different window.
Wakanda is as much the hero of this film as T’Challa himself. Where many superheroes have a secret identity, in this case the movie explores the secret identity of an entire fictional nation. The world believes Wakanda to be a third world country, impoverished due to lack of trade. In reality, it’s an African utopia. Wakanda is a technologically advanced nation that has escaped the threat of colonization because of its isolationist philosophy.
There’s a beautiful parallel between the end of Iron Man and the close of Black Panther. In Iron Man, Stark gives up on his secret identity, and reveals himself to the world. In Black Panther, T’Challa gives up on Wakanda’s secret identity, and begins to reveal the truth of his nation to the rest of the world. The parallels are subtle, but powerful.
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